by Art Hazelwood, Curator
Hobos to Street People: Artists’ Responses to Homelessness from the New Deal to the Present has been traveling for four years. The show began at what seemed a most appropriate time, the onslaught of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. A question at the time was would the devastation inflicted on people lead to a new sense of common purpose in society?
Four years I have traveled with the show and seen local governments respond with viscousness to homeless people. In Colorado, where the show was recently, the city of Denver made sleeping a criminal offense. San Francisco, where the show originated, passed a measure criminalizing sitting as well. Now Berkeley’s mayor and city council have put a measure on the ballot to criminalize sitting. The idea of criminalizing poor people––giving them tickets they can’t pay so they get warrants for their arrest––has caught on. The 1930s offered similar examples. California passed anti-Okie laws and the Los Angeles chief of police imposed a statewide “Bum Blockade” at all three neighboring state borders. It was the federal government that offered a counterweight to such laws then.
There are, however, local governments looking for solutions rather than demonization. On October 13th, at the Richmond Art Center, where the Hobos show was recently on exhibit, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin of Richmond, CA opened a panel discussion on a Homeless Peoples’ Bill of Rights.
During these four years the response to the exhibit has been positive, but many people have left wondering what can they do. This new movement to guarantee rights for homeless people gives a meaningful answer to that question. Turning perceptions about homelessness from a person with a problem to a system with a problem has been the purpose of this exhibition all along.